November 14, 2018
On a beige surface as dry and crumbly as a forgotten biscuit at the bottom of the tin England, with the considerable benefit of batting first, put some runs on the board – 285 of them. Whether that is enough to control the game we must wait to know for sure but the likelihood is that this is a highly satisfactory total. It is more certain that this surface is offering more help to the spinners than the one in Galle and the contest is likely to be mesmerising, which is nearly always the case when the pitch possesses a few demons and runs are at a premium.
The main contributors were Jos Buttler and Sam Curran, who hit 63 and 64 respectively and both innings were brimful of bravura. For most butlers spending much of the day sweeping is a task well below their station, but this is certainly not the case with England’s new number five. Fifty-one of Buttler’s runs came from a miscellany of sweeps, the paddle, the reverse, the slog and even the occasional orthodox one; five of his runs were taken from the paceman, Suranga Lakmal, so just eight more against the spinners came, rather boringly, via a vertical bat. This was a knock of remarkable daring and skill; inevitably it ended with a miscued reverse sweep.
Equally gobsmacking was yet another virtuoso effort from the precocious Sam Curran at the end of the innings. Initially Curran displayed more restraint than any of the England batsmen; it took him 50 balls to reach double figures. But when last man Jimmy Anderson came to the crease Curran accelerated in the most spectacular manner. He hit six sixes against the spinners despite there being six men on the boundary most of the time. The last wicket partnership of 60 was the largest of the innings and when Malinda Pushpakumara dropped Curran on 51, a straightforward chance at long-on, the Sri Lankans were in despair.
All the English batsmen, with the exception of Keaton Jennings, who was dismissed early on by Lakmal, reached double figures. Given the frequently used mantra of “the first ten balls are the hardest against the turning ball” perhaps England should have made more of winning the toss and all those starts. Yet such was the brilliance of Curran, nobly supported by Anderson, who did not have to face very often, that England were not in a mood to quibble about lost opportunities come the close of play – especially after Jack Leach had bowled Kaushal Silva with a beauty, which turned obligingly past the outside edge to clip the off bail.
Jennings, caught behind to a stiff-legged prod, was the only batsman to be dismissed by a pace bowler. The statistics suggest that he would be a better number six since his record against spin bowling is so much better than against pace. But England have enough men who can bat down there. That group used to include Ben Stokes, who now emerges at number three. He was at ease against the pace of Lakmal but twice he loitered on the crease to full-length off-breaks from Dilruwan Perera pitching on middle and leg and on the second occasion he was lbw.
Joe Root stayed true to the team’s determination to be aggressive by hitting a delivery from Pushpakumara over mid-off very early in his innings. As ever he looked untroubled and then mysteriously he missed a straight ball from the left-armer, which passed through a surprising gap between bat and pad. Top class players seldom miss such deliveries. All the while Rory Burns had been busy and reassuring. After three innings he has yet to reach 50, but he looks the part. Here Burns, on 43 edged a floated off-break from Akila Dananjaya to slip.
From the start of his innings Buttler decided it was a day for sweeping especially against the slower of the Sri Lankan spinners, Pushpakumara and Dananjaya. And unlike when he tried to play with a conventional straight bat he never missed, whether reverse sweeping or thumping the ball in front of square leg. So England had raced to 120 for four by lunch in another spellbinding first session.
They decelerated a little in the afternoon. Moeen Ali was lbw on the back foot to Pushpakumara; Ben Foakes flickered before being caught at slip off the inside edge and pad. When Buttler’s first flawed sweep was caught England had slumped to 171 for seven but as is often the case in a buoyant side the tail wagged.
Adil Rashid batted masterfully for 31 and then came the inspired hitting of Curran, which had a large English contingent on the grassy banks in raptures. Whether their elation was shared by those tourists who had been bumped out of their hotel to be compensated by “a banana and half a bottle of wine” according to one punter and inconvenienced by more than two hours commuting from Dambulla, is debatable. They may soon be uplifted by a letter of sympathy from the England captain.